Sunset Magazine, Feb, 1994 by Kathleen Norris Brenzel
Antique roses for today's gardens: grow them for their beauty, fragrance, and history
On a warm spring day, delicious fragrances float in the air above a sunny clearing in a valley near the California coast. It's bloom time in this 1-acre display garden at the Wiley family's Roses of Yesterday and Today, and roses are unfurling with perfumed madness, attracting visitors from around the world. They come to amble among the blossoms, to sniff, and to take photographs. "I had no trouble finding the garden," says one visitor as she steps out of a sports car. "I just rolled down the windows and followed my nose."
Much of this heady fragrance comes from the Wileys' collection of antique roses (also called old garden roses)--ones belonging to classes that were developed before 1867, the year that 'La France', the first hybrid tea, ushered in the era of modern roses. As with other commercial growers of old roses, the Wileys' love of these historic beauties grew into a business.
As Pat Wiley leads this visitor through the forest of shrubs, ramblers, and climbers, each cloaked with sumptuous blossoms, she introduces her favorite roses as though they are old friends: 'Baronne Prevost' is "perfection itself," 'Petite de Hollande' has "buds that hold their shape beautifully when dried in potpourri," and 'Salet' is "my favorite old moss." In the garden's center, white-flowered Rosa moschata scrambles up a tall, rusted windmill "in memory of a cow named Rosey who used to live here." Just down the hill, 'Marechal Niel' drapes its long canes over an old apple tree and dangles its yellow blossoms above eye level ("the flowers seem to follow you, like they're watching you," Wiley says).
As bustling as their garden is on this bright spring day, for the Wileys, winters are the busiest time of year. That's when they ship some 95,000 bare-root plants, grown in fields near Wasco, California, to gardeners around the country. (February is not too late to order old roses for blooms in your own garden by late spring.)
The Wileys and other growers report rising demand for old roses. What accounts for their renewed popularity? "There's such an interest in old things now--art, furniture, family heirlooms. I get calls from couples who are restoring Victorian houses in San Francisco. They want roses that are in keeping with the period architecture, the gingerbread trim, and the lace curtains." Indeed there's magic to growing roses so steeped in history: the musk rose immortalized by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, or the Rose of Castile brought to California by Spanish missionaries in the 1700s ("hardly a mission garden was without one," Wiley notes), or the Harison's yellow rose pioneers brought West in their covered wagons.
The names of many old roses suggest regal elegance and romance: 'Prince Camille de Rohan', 'Empress Josephine', 'Belle Amour'. But their names don't begin to describe the delicious fragrances of many of these old charmers--the fruitiness of ripe apples, the spiciness of cloves, or the heady sweetness of the most floral perfume. Neither do they evoke the beauty of their blooms--big, loose cabbages, short-petaled powder puffs, or single-petaled starbursts--nor their range of colors, from creamy white to bright orange to pink striped with cherry red, like ribbon candy.
There's a stately grace to the plants themselves, and many kinds possess the toughness and disease resistance that have made them survivors.
How do you choose from so many kinds now available? We asked Wiley and other growers around the West to name some of their favorites ("about as easy as singling out your favorite child," one commented). The box on the opposite page lists 18 kinds; use it as a guide to get started. Order plants now and plant as soon as you get them.
Choosing the best types for your garden:
Old roses range widely in habit. There are compact, 4-foot shrubs with wide clusters of small flowers (China roses). And then there are taller, 5- to 8-foot shrubs with big, opulent, often very fragrant flowers (hybrid perpetuals). You'll also find vigorous, somewhat gangly shrubs with cup-shaped blooms (Bourbons).
Some old roses (albas, damasks, gallicas, centifolias, and most moss roses) bloom only once a year. Others, including most Bourbons, Chinas, hybrid perpetuals, hybrid musks, rugosas, and teas, are repeat bloomers; choose these for prominent spots in the garden.
Choose roses that are most suited to your climate. China, noisette, and tea roses, for example, are somewhat tender and thrive only in mild-winter climates, or in greenhouses. Bourbons, hybrid perpetuals, and Portlands are somewhat hardier but still need protection in cold-winter areas. The hardiest ones for the West's coldest climates (Alaska, Colorado) include autumn damasks, gallicas, centifolias, and species roses such as R. rugosa and its hybrids. Where to buy old roses
Well-stocked nurseries are beginning to sell some old roses. But for the best selection, order bare-root plants by mail.
Best of the old roses? Here are rosarians' favorites
Best for beginners
'Alfred de Dalmas' (hybrid moss, 1855). "A charming rose with fragrant blush pink to white blooms. It's compact--great for small gardens--and tough."
Pat Wiley, Watsonville, California
'Jacques Cartier' (also called 'Marquise Boccella', 1842). "Cup-shaped pink flowers are packed with petals, all folded inside. Plant is a repeat bloomer."
Joyce Demits, Fort Bragg, California
'Souvenir de la Malmaison' (Bourbon, 1843). "It's easy, even in containers. I've grown it in a big pot for 25 years, and it blooms twice a year."
'Reine des Violettes' (hybrid perpetual, 1860). "Thornless, easy to grow, always in bloom. The most blue of all roses."
'Baronne Prevost' (hybrid perpetual, 1842). "Big, open flowers with many small, tightly packed rose-pink petals that are very perfumy."
'Boule de Neige' (Bourbon, 1867). "Everybody's favorite. Snowy white, camellia-like blooms smell like cold cream."
R. eglanteria (sweet briar, before 1551). "Should be in every big garden against a back fence where its marvelous, fruity, ripe-apple fragrance can waft across to patios and into open windows."
'La Reine' (hybrid perpetual, 1842). "Heavy damask fragrance is very pleasing to the nose."